At 13, the concept of being “seen” seems horrifying, but simultaneously exhilarating. You want everyone to like you, even the cruel boys who are probably pranking you, while also wanting to be good at something, like crushing the drum solo in the school band. You dress to fit in, following whatever the “cool” kids are doing, even when that means belly tops and thongs.
Hulu series Pen15, in all of its creative genius, taps into the unique experience of going through puberty in the early 2000s. Main characters Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) depict perfectly what it’s like to be terribly uncomfortable while dealing with all of the trials that come with adolescence, like shaving your legs for the first time, but also processing experiences like divorce and loss.
Here, seven women share which moment in Pen15 made them feel the most seen, whether in a horrifying or exhilarating way. (Sometimes, it’s both.)
In episode 9, “Anna Ishii-Peters,” Anna spends the night at Maya’s house and they get into a fight. When Anna returns to her own house, her parents reveal they are getting a divorce. Anna tries to call Maya but can’t reach her. Instead, she calls popular girl Heather, the only girl she knows who has divorced parents. The next day, Maya hears Heather talking about Anna’s parents’ divorce and gets mad that Anna didn’t tell her first.
This episode triggered my shame in having a similar reaction in eighth grade. My boyfriend Oscar was ignoring me all throughout spring break, and I angrily confronted him. He told me that his parents had gotten a divorce. I got pissed that he didn’t come to me right away, and broke up with him right then. I feel awful looking back at how horrible I was. I was likely still living with the pain of my own parents’ divorce, which happened when I was nine, so I didn’t know how to help him. Oscar, if you read this, I am so sorry for how I treated you when we were 13. —Nancy Wang Yuen, sociology professor
I felt almost too seen by Maya Ishii-Peters—not only are we both half-Japanese, we evidently had the same haircut, and we even both played percussion (badly) in the school band. The scene of Maya flying off the rails during her impromptu drum performance had me screaming and covering my eyes, because that literally could have been me. I was pretty equally terrible at most things I attempted in middle school—in band, they ended up putting a rubber pad over my drum set when I played, to muffle the sound during performances. I had a nervous breakdown and cried during my audition for the dance team.
I remember so vividly the longing to want to be noticed for being good at something, and while I never actually had my Maya moment in the spotlight, I was simultaneously horrified and jealous of her in that insane scene. Luckily, my mom didn’t let me have AIM, or I’m sure I would have ended up with a screen name right on par with Diper911. —Quinsi Lake, recruiter
The year is 2003. “21 Questions” by 50 Cent has just come out. I’m riding the bus back to school after a student council field trip when I decide to tell a few of my close friends about this cool new thing I discovered I could do with the removable shower head in my bathroom. Unbeknownst to me, Jesse (a lanky blue-eyed boy with perfectly spiked blonde hair) was eavesdropping on the all-girl discussion, and news of the conversation spread like wildfire through the halls of Paul Revere Middle School. None of the other girls understood the strange tingly discovery I tried to describe to them, and the aftermath of my attempt at sharing the experience only led to humiliation and shame.
When Maya Ishii-Peters made that same discovery that I made so many years ago in episode 3 of Pen15, I finally felt seen! I’m a few years younger than Maya and Anna, but the way they masterfully capture the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl in the early aughts made me laugh, cry, and say, “OMG this is accurate AF” like nothing else has before. Both women manage to play young girls learning about their changing bodies with a subtle balance of crude humor and genuine sincerity. How many times have we seen jokes about crusty tube socks and warm apple pies? These tropes are tired. Shoutout to the year 2000 for making capri pants and butterfly clips happen, but shout out to 2019 for making shows like Pen15 happen. At long last, girls get to be in on all the masturbation jokes. —Zoe Lizbeth Jardine, content producer
Probably when Anna asks that little guy who she’s had a crush on all season if he’ll dance with her, and he just straight up says ‘No’ and walks away. In teen dramas and comedies throughout time, school dances have historically been a stage for these big romantic wins (you find out your crush has liked you the whole time!!) or massive humiliations (you were voted prom queen as a prank!), when in reality, puberty-era school dances were full of many small, almost mundane humiliations that sort of happen and then fizzle into quiet sadness. —Maria Yagoda, digital editor
I’ve always been “the funny one.” While charming to some (and annoying to most), it was never the characteristic that made me cool growing up. Luckily, I’ve grown up with the same best friend since I was two years old, just like Maya and Anna, so I was never alone in my “You’re such a weirdo,” “You’re so crazy!” lifestyle. I felt seen in the episodes in which Anna and Maya live in sort of a fantasy land, making fake lives up about their toys, pretending to kiss boys, and, of course, creating skits around the Spice Girls getting osteoporosis (making topical sketches about medical issues would have been my shit!). Countless video clips exist of my childhood best friend Isa and me creating plays and schemes for our budding comedy careers.
But just like what happened to Anna and Maya, if you ever put us in a group setting, our quirkiness could not thrive. One summer Isa and I attended what you might call a vacation Bible school circuit, and were catapulted into a new friend group each week. We didn’t attend the camps for intense religious reasons—rather, our working moms saw a system of free daycare that could easily be hacked. We were commonly the only two ethnic young women at Christian religious camps in Orange County, California, and it always felt like no one understood or accepted us. Just like Maya was forced to play Scary Spice, I too always had to play Scary Spice due to slight racism, and our camp sessions ended with us just being labeled uncool or weird and hanging out by ourselves. Seeing a friendship like that mirrored on screen made me thankful for a best friend to survive the worst part of adolescence with. If you’re going to be the funny, weird one, it’s a lot easier to have a partner in comedic crime. It’s also what the Lord would want. —Chloe Hall, editor and producer
Let me set the scene: The year is 2000. It was the night of the sixth-grade dance held in my school’s dimly lit gym. Wet n Wild frosted eyeshadow and Stila lipgloss in that annoying tube brush had been expertly applied to my face. I was feelin’ myself the way only a four-eyed tween holding her mom’s lime green Coach bag could. My friends and I moved to the Ying Yang Twins in a euphoric trance.
And then it happened.
We don’t talk about adolescent grinding enough. It’s a middle-school milestone that, for many, comes even before your first kiss or your first boyfriend. Pen15 expertly and uniquely captured that magical moment with such realism that my body convulsed in cringe when I watched the final episode. The situation rarely makes its way to the screen, but I felt seen.
It’s always some boy that you’ve never spoken to from your algebra class. Nick put his tiny twelve-year-old hands on my tiny twelve-year-old hips and we awkwardly flicked our body in opposite directions while Nelly’s #1 hit “Hot in Herre” blasted on the dance floor (I grew up in the Bay Area, so music was rarely age appropriate).
You think you’re Jessica Alba in Honey, but in reality you’re Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance. You panic and ask yourself a million questions: Are your pelvises supposed to touch? Does he like me like me? What just touched my butt?
The song ended and Nick disappeared before I even had a chance to turn around. To this day, I have never spoken to him.
Pen15’s ability to recreate this memory was powerful. It made me remember that those inconsequential moments from your teens are awkward, yes, but universal. It wasn’t just me that grinded when I shouldn’t have been grinding. I wasn’t some weirdo who danced up on a guy, but a girl going through the exact same thing as everyone else. —Justine Carreon, market editor
The crimes of my mother were seemingly innumerable—according to my 13-year-old self, that is. Not allowing me to go to sleepovers, forcing me to drink the weird herb concoctions she’d gin up “for my health,” corralling me into working for her business (instead of, I don’t know, letting me get a COOL JOB like at a clothing store)…the list went on. But perhaps one of the most traumatic things she allowed to happen to me was the time she took me to a random hairdresser and let them perform a tragic operation on my hair (which never, ever did anything to deserve this).
I ended up with a kind of voluminous soft triangle of hair on my head that made me look like Super Mario’s mushroom pal Toad—just in time for the very first day of seventh grade. That’s why I knew from the first episode that watching Pen15 was going to hurt. When Maya’s mom put that bowl on her head, ready to cut her hair into a shining circle of wrong, I knew exactly what was coming next. I also very much relate to Maya’s continual whining about everything that sucks. It’s the official sound of teenage privilege and self-centeredness. I’m not proud of it! —Estelle Tang, editor